Why are we waiting?

24 Sep

Politics, the diplomatic service and the law – three establishment professions – have all been in the news regarding their promotion of women.

First came the controversy over the composition of Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet , which drew criticism because the top jobs shadowing ‘great offices of State’ were awarded to men: Shadow Chancellor, Shadow Foreign Secretary and Shadow Home Secretary. Although the Shadow Cabinet is majority female, many expressed dismay that women are in relatively junior posts.

This version of gender balance by numbers, but not status, is a persistent issue. There have been similar criticisms made regarding women on boards, where numerical gender equality has frequently been achieved by offering women non-executive roles rather than the more powerful executive positions.

By contrast, in the middle pages of the Economist (page 35 or behind the paywall), I read that the French diplomatic corps has attained a record share of female ambassadors – one third – and has paid attention to prestige as well as numbers. The current French ambassador to London is a woman, as are strategically important ambassadors in Ukraine and Pakistan. Meanwhile, here in the UK , 19% of ambassadors are women and we have never sent a female ambassador to Washington D.C. or Paris – although we do now have a woman ambassador in Beijing. How have the French transformed the position of women in diplomacy? In 2012 they set a target of 40% senior public offices to be occupied by women by 2018. Here in the UK, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been behind other government departments in terms of senior female appointments, reflecting a longstanding male dominance. The marriage bar was only lifted for female diplomats in 1973. Like senior politicians and lawyers, senior female diplomats are less likely to be married and/or have children than their male counterparts. In recent initiatives, the Foreign Office has addressed issues of work-life balance creatively by offering job-share postings to married diplomats, or by offering neighbouring overseas positions. These are welcome developments, but may not address wider diversity issues for those with spouses in different professions.

Meanwhile over in the law, Lord Sumption, a member of the Supreme Court, has expressed his views regarding gender equality in the judiciary. He is concerned that ‘rushing’ to achieve women’s equality in the judiciary could have ‘appalling consequences’ . A quarter of judges are currently female, and the proportion of women declines the further up the judicial hierarchy you go. Lord Sumption has suggested that the lack of women judges can be explained by women being perhaps less willing to put in the long hours : ‘as a lifestyle choice it’s very hard to quarrel with it’ he says. Analysis of women’s positon in the legal profession here and here suggests that there are issues of professional culture which can affect women, beyond any consideration of more flexible working patterns. Informal networking and mentoring are important for career progression, and are often less accessible and sustainable for women barristers than for men, in a profession full of senior men from a relatively narrow range of backgrounds.

Lord Sumption is reported as suggesting that we should be ‘patient’, and that it could take up to 50 years for there to be equal numbers of male and female judges; in politics we have reached the point where 29% of MPs are women, but it will take a further 50 years to reach parity at current rates of change. In this scenario, I can only quote Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary where ‘patience’ is defined as ‘a mild form of despair disguised as a virtue’.





I’m 99% sure that we can’t all do maternity leave like the 1%

3 Sep

Marissa Mayer has sparked a debate over maternity leave through her announcement that she will be taking only 2 weeks maternity leave when she gives birth in December. She’s the CEO of Yahoo, one of the highest paid executives in the world, in the notoriously male-dominated world of technology companies. When she had her first child, she followed this same path, and raised a few eyebrows soon afterwards by banning remote working for her employees, while installing a nursery next her own office to accommodate her child alongside her professional responsibilities.

Predictably there has been a spate of articles saying that maternity leave is a personal choice for her, which she is exercising for herself, just as a man in her position would; isn’t it sexist to see her differently from a male CEO making the same choices within weeks of becoming a father? I’m not sure it is. It is not sexist to say that it is different to go through the transition to parenthood as the person who actually gives birth and who may breastfeed afterwards, from being the parent who supports this process. Both parents may be equally important to their children, but the physical impact of childbirth is experienced uniquely by women. For many women this is a relatively straightforward and highly rewarding process, but some births are a lot easier to recover from than others, and two weeks recovery before resuming even lightened work duties would not work for every mother. Or for every type of work come to that. Mayer is to be praised for extending Yahoo’s maternity benefits to encompass 16 weeks of paid leave. In a country still without any mandatory parental leave system, this is an important benefit for employees. However, by not taking it herself, Mayer leaves the suggestion that parental leave is for the little people hanging in the air.

And of course, no-one is asking what role her husband will be playing in their presumably joint decision to arrange things this way. Is he taking time off? Is he going to be primary parent while his wife guides her company through a crucial period? Whether he is doing these things or not, the public assumption is that Mayer’s stellar salary will cover the kind of high-quality round-the-clock childcare that most people can only dream of. And it is certainly true that she can afford it.

Parental leave policies facilitate equality and diversity in the workplace. Female workers in tech report feeling compromised and marginalised by the choices for balancing work and family life available in this particular culture, and they often leave. Silicon Valley companies have recently launched a number of high profile parental leave packages, presumably with a view to retain valuable employees. Parental leave should facilitate both sexes in both their careers and their family life. By not being a visible proponent of her company’s maternity leave policies, Mayer underlines the exceptionalism of her position, rather than providing an attainable path for many others.

And this brings us back to the individual choice issue: Marissa Mayer is doing what she is doing because she can. She has a powerful position from which to negotiate terms, she has the support of her board and has put in place an infrastructure to enable her to continue working with her children close at hand, and to cover childcare needs whenever they crop up. Most people are simply not in that position.

Here in the UK, 54,000 women are losing jobs through maternity-related discrimination each year, even in a system where maternity leave is available for most workers. Many professions still suffer from ‘leaky pipelines’ in terms of promoting women to senior levels, and childcare costs are so high both here and in the USA that many families find it simply uneconomic for both parents to carry on working as they might otherwise choose to do. I read a comment in an American article that ‘millenials’ are ‘seeking a solution that works for them, not a one-size-fits-all maternity policy’, a stance which sees Mayer as a great example of what is possible. The problem with this approach is that it does not foster a climate which caters for the needs of many, who take both their working lives and family lives seriously, and who wish to stay off the breadline. It’s not enough to make maternity leave an individualistic lifehack; we need policies in place so that more parents can hack it in the system. In Europe it is often argued that senior managers must visibly buy into flexible working and parental leave plans in order for men to even consider taking them up; if senior women in the USA don’t take up corporate leave packages, we’re left with the same old ‘default male’ models of success for the majority of employees. Is that good enough for us?



Human Writes ….

12 Aug

A few years ago, Bic, the biro makers, were widely ridiculed when they advertised ‘a pen for her’, in pink of course, and apparently suitable for female hands. Now, Bic South Africa has apologised for, and deleted, an advert posted for South African national Women’s Day. It depicted a woman in a suit, smiling to camera, accompanied by the following text:

Look like a girl

Act like a lady

Think like a man

Work like a boss

What could possibly go wrong? … How this caption got past even the vaguest internal monitoring process remains a mystery – the cynic might suggest that Bic put the image out knowing exactly what attention it would garner – but is any publicity really good publicity? And why choose a day normally reserved for celebrating women’s achievements to suggest that anything but womanhood goes?

Because that’s the worst thing about this advert – that ‘girl’ ‘lady’ ‘man’ and ‘boss’ are all fine identities – but ‘woman’? Just not something you can routinely be in your successful life. ‘Woman’ , it would appear, is an attribute you have to cover up with other things in order to get by. I can barely be bothered with the ‘think like a man’ element of this – the element which seems to have garnered most comment – because all the arguments have been repeated so many times it’s tiresome. No, not all men are the same and neither are all women. It’s the other parts of the captioning that make matters even worse. We can’t even look like women or act like women, rather we need to strive for girlishness in appearance and be ladylike in our actions. How could this ever have been seen as an empowering message – as Bic claimed initially was their intention? Since when was looking like a girl empowering for women except in a rather objectifying and ageist way? Since when was acting ‘like a lady’ the passport to empowerment? The Merriam-Webster online definition of ‘ladylike’ is ‘polite and quiet in a way that has traditionally been considered suited to a woman’ – all the better to oppress you with, my dear … As for working like a boss, well the items seem to add up to the fact that this is not something ‘women’ do either.

And perhaps most depressingly of all, this thoughtless image for a Women’s Day campaign has been conjured up by a manufacturer of pens – pens, the very thing we use to communicate our thoughts and express ourselves. Perish the thought that a woman might write something powerful. Would the girlish loops of our handwriting and the ladylike decorum of our letters stand us in good stead? Not so. According to a recent experiment where an author sent the same script out to agents under respectively a man’s and a woman’s name, and got different results – the male bias of the prospective publisher would soon put paid to any silly ideas like that…. We really should know our limits, as drawn by the red line of a Bic biro, no doubt.




Does it matter that there is only one man on the Women and Equalities Select Committee?

5 Jul

A fair few column inches have been devoted to the fact that the House of Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport has ended up being entirely male and white. In our era this does look like a failure of representation, especially considering that representation in arts, media and sports could reasonably fall under the remit of that Committee. No wonder New Statesman’s Media Mole declared themselves too depressed to be funny….

Meanwhile, eyelids have not apparently batted at the make-up of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, which contains only one male MP – a newly-elected member of the House. Does this matter? Given the subject of this Committee’s business it is entirely appropriate for women to be in a majority. It would be crazy otherwise – but I can’t help feeling a little disappointed that only one man will be present – and that with the exception of Chair Maria Miller, all of the members are newly elected. I’m sure their credentials are admirable, but it does seem unusual that more seasoned MPs will not sit around this particular table. In the criticised Culture Committee, at least half of members were elected before 2015, and the Women and Equalities Committee is the only one I can find with members drawn exclusively from the latest intake.

The reason why this may be of concern is fear of what one might term ‘pinkbusification’. During the election the Labour Party decided to reconnect with female voters by taking a pink bus around the country to discuss women’s issue. As I wrote at the time, this strategy runs the danger of saying that there is a ‘politics for her’ – somehow separate from the mainstream of hard, manly issues. While the motivation may come from a place of respecting women’s views and experiences, the consequence of having a separate strategy for women may be to sideline their concerns all the more.

As for the Women and Equalities Committee, it would be great to think that it augurs a new commitment to bringing gender and equalities issues to the fore in Parliament. The case for this is made eloquently here by Prof. Sarah Childs, who sees it as an important part of a move towards a more gender-sensitive and publicly-responsive parliament. It is important to remember that the ‘Equalities’ element of the Committee’s work would include areas such as disability, race, sexuality and class inequalities, all of which affect men as well as women.

But by having no established male MPs on the committee it could be read that inequalities are not a big concern for the most powerful group in the land – the stale, male, pale majority of Parliament itself. That could potentially be an excuse to say ‘they’ have a Committee to address their concerns, rather than seeing the inequalities of life chances all around us as a crucial and central concern of those in power.

Of course as a scrutiny body the Women and Equalities Committee will have the same potential to influence as any other Committee – and there is no reason why its members will not do an excellent job. But the gender make-up of these Committees does say something of how individual political issues are viewed in Westminster and beyond. Of seven Committees (apart from Culture) where full membership has been announced, women are in the majority in Education and Women and Equalities, while Defence, Justice, Scottish Affairs, Northern Ireland, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs are all predominantly male- although the last has a female Chair. Women make up 22% of Select Committee Chairs, a little lower than female representation in Parliament which now stands at 29%. We are not yet in a world where gender goes unnoticed, or where the hierarchy of importance given to different issues is gender neutral. In the meantime it would be good to think that women and equalities really matter to the big beasts in politics – most of whom are still middle-aged men.






Scientists, we have a problem …

11 Jun

The comments of Sir Tim Hunt, Nobel laureate, at a lunch function at a science journalism conference in South Korea, have raised a storm of comment in response. Just in case you have missed his bon mots, he has asserted that the ‘trouble’ with ‘girls’ in the lab is that ‘you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them they cry’. Yes, he did say that, and then he kind of apologised, saying it was ‘joke’ but also that he did mean what he said. You see, ‘emotional entanglements’ (!) ‘disrupt’ science and he felt the need to underline that. His solution? Sex-segregated labs, so that men would not be distracted by women. At this point you do wish he was kidding. A half-hearted apology for saying ‘silly’ things in a room full of female journalists does not quite cut it.

As other commentators have already pointed out, a saving grace of the incident may be that it has laid bare an open secret. When it comes to sexism, science hierarchies have unfortunate form. A smattering of female Nobel laureates, this year’s Field medal in mathematics, and the exposure of cases where awards were given to men when it was women in the lab who deserved the credit, do plenty to disabuse any notion that what Hunt might refer to as ‘the fairer sex’ are not up to scientific excellence. But the persistent scarcity of women in science – especially in the highest echelons – tells its own story. Only 17% of professors in STEM in the UK are female. The response is often that this simply reflects the fact that women are less likely to study sciences and to proceed into the profession. This is true, but not to the extent that the low figures suggest.

The Royal Society, of which Hunt is a Fellow, has moved to distance itself from Hunt’s comments, saying that ‘science needs women’, but falling short in some eyes of repudiation of his remarks. The Society has had its own issues, having seen a fall in the number of Fellowships awarded to women under some recent schemes. Indeed, a recent investigation was launched to understand why only 2 of 43 early career University Research Fellowships were awarded to women in the last round – in previous years up to a third of awards went to women. The investigation was not able to pinpoint particular systemic reasons for the low number of awards to women, but a suite of initiatives to promote fellowships more actively to women scientists, and to train selection panels in issues relating to bias has been put in place. As I have blogged previously, unconscious bias has been identified – through systematic research no less – as an issue in recruitment and retention of scientists.

Perhaps Tim Hunt’s outburst might concentrate the collective mind on attitudes which may still affect women in science. After all, even Stephen Hawking declared women a ‘mystery’. It is incumbent on scientists now to ensure that the ‘problem’ of women in science is seen as a problem in the parts of the professional hierarchy, and not of women. Hunt’s idea that a ‘solution’ to the ‘distractions’ of women is to segregate them into labs of their own, is perhaps the most damaging of all. Women are not ‘the other’ – we are people working on equal terms to solve the problems of the world. And if that is not already actually the case, it is old men of science who have the problem.




30 hours free childcare – what could be simpler?

28 May

After years on the sidelines, childcare has finally arrived in the policy limelight. The Queen’s Speech confirmed that the Conservatives’ manifesto commitment to double the offer of free hours of childcare for 3 and 4 years-olds – from 15 to 30 hours per week – will be put in a childcare bill. On the face of it, this is great news for families – so what’s the problem?

Well, in fact, there are a number of issues. Doubling the amount of free hours sounds simple, until you begin to think about who bears the cost of increased free provision. Many have pointed out previously that free hours of childcare are already under-funded, and yesterday the Pre-School Learning Alliance quoted independent research showing that this amounted to a shortfall of 20% on existing free hours of childcare. The solution for providers is therefore to raise the cost of paid-for hours, which means that parents may pay more for additional hours.

Moreover, the extra free hours are for 3 and 4 year olds, so that new parents are faced with some hard choices at the point at which post-birth leave runs out. If you are returning to work before your child is 3, you then have to come up with a set of arrangements to cover the period before the 30 hours of free provision kicks in. From 2013, 15 free hours of childcare has made available for 2 year-olds whose parents are in lower income groups, but if you are earn any more and/or need care before your child turns two, you have to pay. Stitching together affordable solutions – and possibly multiple local childcare services – is stressful and costly for everyone. If you are a lone parent this applies all the more. In the UK, parents bear amongst the highest childcare costs in Europe. So there is a case – as NCT have suggested – for devoting greater attention (and funds) to affordable provision for under-3s. Given that longer periods out of the workplace tend to be associated with greater loss of earnings long-term, this may make sense within the system as it is.

In the UK our childcare and early years provision is complex, with an array of State, voluntary sector and private providers to navigate. Much of the early years provision is good or outstanding, but it tends to be in better-off areas, and to be in maintained nurseries. So gaps in provision tend to occur where parents might need it most – in areas of deprivation and/or where quality voluntary- or private-sector provision may be scarce. These differences are not immediately solved by increasing the number of free hours available. Further, the additional hours are proposed in the absence of any overt consideration of quality of care; to what extent can we be sure that quality can be preserved as the free provision is increased?

Finally, there is an issue around the terms of the offer: to be eligible for the free 30 hours, all parents in the household have to be employed. In the Nordic countries, to which British policymakers often turn for inspiration, the system has historically rested on the assumption that all families use State-subsidised childcare. More equal employment rates for mothers and fathers follow. In the UK, the emphasis in terms of subsidised childcare provision is often on the employment status of parents. If we thought even more about the benefits of quality early years provision for all children, this could both open up more children’s opportunities, and make more affordable and sustainable childcare choices possible for parents, especially as they move into employment after taking leave.


The Other Euro-vision

24 May

As millions of Britons enthusiastically sat on the sofa for another Eurovision Song Contest, it occurred to me that our country does not often display similar attachment to other European institutions, and that one might well ask ‘What has Europe ever done for us?’ Perhaps part of the problem is that the Acts of the European Union have not had the services of their very own George Campey (yes, really). He was a BBC man who coined the term ‘Eurovision’ in the face of the preferred name ‘European Television Exchange’ – anyone who would vote for that option is clearly (straight) bananas …

So here’s a timely reminder of some things Europe has done for us – some unsexy Article names demonstrate a commitment to stuff important for us all :

The Treaty of Rome in 1957 (Article 119 EEC, then 141 EC, now Article 157 TFEU) equal pay for equal work

Treaty of Amsterdam in 1999, (Article 2 EC) the promotion of equality between men and women became one of the essential tasks of the European Community

Lisbon Treaty (Article 2 TEU), gender equality can be used as a yardstick for determining whether a European state can be a candidate for accession.

EU legislation (Directive 92/85/EEC), all women in the EU have the right to at least 14 weeks maternity leave and to protection from dismissal for being pregnant.

Directive 2006/54/EC on EU rules on equal treatment for women and men in employment addressing different elements of the equal pay principle (IP/13/1227)

The Working Time Directive, 2003/88/EC, is a Directive of the European Union. It gives EU workers the right to a minimum number of holidays each year, rest breaks, and rest of at least 11 hours in any 24 hours; restricts excessive night work; a day off after a week’s work; and provides for a right to work no more than 48 hours per week

And the wonk in Wonklifebalance has to direct your attention to all those programmes which fund research in our Universities and generate much of the evidence we need:


Oh and finally, Europe stands up for our rights – and that gets my vote:

‘The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) (formally the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms) is an international treaty to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms in Europe. Drafted in 1950 by the then newly formed Council of Europe, the convention entered into force on 3 September 1953. All Council of Europe member states are party to the Convention and new members are expected to ratify the convention at the earliest opportunity.’

All in all it’s a case of Brexit, nul points …..








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